Many Ways In, No Way Out: Rodney Ascher’s “Room 237” and the Overlook’s Empty Center

Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary, Room 237, is, on the surface, an examination of some of the more outré readings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The theorists involved are not only permitted ample time in which to present their readings, the documentary also seems to help them by way of animations, maps, and lengthy, even slowed-motion, scenes from the film in question. The piece has been (mis)read as a grab-bag of conspiracy theories, a mess of ultimately fruitless attempts to decode the original film, to discover its “true meaning.” This stance, however, that of expert analysis and map-making, is subtly undermined by Ascher’s techniques. Rather than fixing the “meaning” of The Shining, far from tracking down and identifying its elusive center, Room 237 destabilizes previously held assumptions about this film. By presenting a collage of interpretations in such a peculiar manner, this documentary casts doubt on the very possibility of finding such a center. Not only does the piece engage in this interpretive “free play,” it also hints at the very features of Kubrick’s film which encourage such an engagement.

In “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” Jacques Derrida considers the structuring role of a center. Texts rely upon fixed points which “orient, balance, and organize the structure.”[1] In a work of fiction, such a center may be seen as either a represented object, relationship or situation, or (when the work is considered analytically) as a unifying theme, meaning or underlying code. Within the scope of narrative representation, for instance, an object such as Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin” (be it a buried treasure or a stolen formula) may serve as such a center. This item structures the narrative around it by providing motivation for characters and a definitive goal. A situation, while not so easily visualized, may still play a similar role in a structure. Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, for instance, is organized around what at first appears to be the simple case of a missing person. The film’s detective protagonist uncovers unpalatable and destabilizing facts throughout the course of that film, but he does so primarily by following the lines of inquiry suggested by the framework of a “missing person case.” The thematic center of a narrative is more difficult to identify, but is commonly thought to wait, like a pot of gold (or an Emerald City) at the end of a rainbow, for the arrival of the patient exegete. Derrida, in fact, refers to the center as a point which confers a certain stability upon the text. The assumption of the existence of such a center, he writes, promises “a play constituted on the basis of a fundamental immobility and a reassuring certitude, which itself is beyond the reach of play.”[2] Even if every element of a given text is thought to mean something other than it presents itself to be, in other words, the existence of a “true” center, a final thematic core, promises to ground these elements in solid earth.

Room 237 examines several theories which attempt to perform such an interpretive grounding for The Shining. Based on everything from the model of typewriter Jack Torrance uses to the recurrence of the number forty-two, for instance, historian Geoffrey Cocks seeks to fix the Holocaust at the film’s dark heart. In a related effort, journalist Bill Blakemore argues for the centrality of the Native American genocide, pointing toward the Overlook Hotel’s placement atop an “Indian burial ground,” product placement involving Calumet baking powder, and the elevator’s bloody freight. Most amusing, though, is Jay Weidner’s theory that The Shining serves as Kubrick’s cryptic confession to having helped fake the moon landing. In a scene of bravura paranoid-critical reading, Weidner explains that Danny’s Apollo 11 sweatshirt and his entry into room 237 gives the entire game away.

A theoretically minded viewer may ultimately be surprised by the omission of even more obvious readings. Where is the Freudian gloss on The Shining, wherein a jealous Jack seeks to castrate his boy before Danny can consummate his relationship with his mother? How about the Marxist interpretation (after all, isn’t Jack supposed to retain his position until May first)? Derrida reminds us that “[s]uccessively, and in a regulated fashion, the center receives different forms or names.”[3] Although he was referring to the manner in which consecutive ontotheological epochs have sought to fix a center for Western thought (as the Logos, Will to Power, Being, etc.), this sentence could not more perfectly describe the struggle Room 237 depicts.[4] Each of these critics, however respectable or marginal their perspective, wishes to find in The Shining a stable center, a core which will unify the film’s often mysterious components. Many critics of the documentary have tended to read it as a straightforward presentation of these theories, as can be seen in the titles of some of these reviews (“Room 237 Claims Kubrick Faked the Apollo Moon Landing”), their references to “secret meanings” having been uncovered, and in their quickly fact-checked debunking of the facts adduced.[5]

Jacques Derrida, though, does not stop at the center, and his next move is one which sheds a different light on the game being played in Room 237. Once, he argues, the “structurality of structure had [begun] to be thought,”[6] once, that is, this role of the center was itself subjected to analysis, a rupture in interpretive discourse was opened which could not be easily closed. The center, heretofore thought of in terms of presence, “has never been itself, has always already been exiled from itself into its own substitute.”[7]

Rather than a transcendental signified, a core of indisputable meaning which radiates outward a stabilizing influence and a solid structure, the center must be seen as a vacant spot successively filled by place-holders. Instead of leading to stagnation, however, and a series of interpretive dead-ends, Derrida argues “[t]he absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”[8] Room 237 locates this “truth” in The Shining in such a subtle manner that its moves may easily be passed over as clever stylistics. These modes of presentation, though, precisely gesture towards what Derrida refers to as “freeplay” and not, as both the most confident theorists interviewed within the documentary and several of the critics outside it prefer, a roadmap to an ultimate meaning.

Room 237, unlike most critical works of its kind, radically foregrounds the cinematic text. Despite its apparent focus on the ways in which The Shining has been received, this documentary does not feature the talking heads typically on display in such a piece. While each of the theorists are given an onscreen introduction, Ascher does not once show their faces. Their words, instead, float across scenes from movies (primarily The Shining), as if they were recording a commentary track and not a documentary about their ideas. This movement displaces them from the authoritative role of the “expert,” that affixer of meaning whose presence is established and reasserted in each thoughtful portrait, each piercing glance. Had Room 237 stopped at such a gesture, though, some semblance of authority may have been retained. Instead, those bits of The Shining which are being examined are interrupted by scenes from other movies.

Kubrick’s movies are featured, of course, which is consonant with an auteur-theory driven piece. Regard a coherent body of cinematic work, they seem to say, thus implying another “ground” upon which interpretation may rest. These scenes, though, provide a silent, often ironic series of statements about the reception of film and thus, by extension, about Room 237’s featured theorists. While Jay Weidner, for instance, explains how his “uncovering” the truth about the faked moon landing has led to subtle persecution from the government, the viewer is treated to images of Tom Cruise wandering the lonely streets of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise’s character (Bill) in that film is engaged in an act of ultimately fruitless hermeneutic disentanglement. Kubrick never explains whether Bill has indeed brushed up against a psychosexual conspiracy theory involving the highest classes of society or has merely run aground on his own paranoia, a neurosis born of his own sexual jealousy. This juxtaposition subtly suggests Weidner and his fellow theorists may be caught in the same bind. Another scene, this one lifted from A Clockwork Orange, implicitly compares Bill Blakemore’s need to write a piece about what The Shining is “about in larger senses”[9] with the character Frank Alexander’s attempts at writing. The latter is best known for not only being crippled by Alex and his “droogs,” but also for not being able to prevent his wife’s violation at their hands. Such a pairing suggests a similar impotence on the part of Room 237’s exegetes.

 Of even more relevance to Derrida’s critique are the scenes from non-Kubrickian cinema which are used to suture together Room 237’s narrative. Ascher interjects, several times throughout the documentary, bits of the Lamberto Bava-directed, Dario Argento-penned Demons series. These movies are reflexive, meta-cinematic pieces, and concern a horror film which infects the minds and bodies of those who watch it.

Significantly, Ascher does not use images of the violence and depravity which follows this infection, opting, instead, for seemingly benign scenes of people being seated in a theater (Demons) or watching the film on video (Demons 2). Aside from asserting Room 237’s place in the horrific canon, as well as gesturing humorously at the viewer’s position before infectious ideas, what might these scenes be meant to convey? Derrida reminds us that even the language with which the philosopher attempts to unseat the transcendental signified from its centrality is itself fatally compromised by the structuring influence of such presumed signifieds. Of such attempts, he writes “we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.”[10] Room 237’s use of Bava’s films suggests that not only does an audience find itself caught within the richly ambiguous The Shining, the critics are caught there as well. Had Ascher chosen scenes from another reflexive piece of horror cinema (Ringu, for instance, or Sinister), the implications may not have been so dire. The latter two movies-within-movies are decodable, structured: they relate messages which, interpreted correctly, yield either an escape from doom or, at the very least, some understanding of the fate which is to befall the viewer-character. Demons, however, offers no such exit. The best one can do is to survive the ride. Derrida argues that metaphysical “destructive discourses are trapped in a kind of circle.”[11] This circle is structured around whatever shiny new center the producer of the discourse has discovered, that which they believe has securely displaced the older, flawed one. Room 237’s featured interpreters, or at least those who have settled on an ultimate meaning hidden within Kubrick’s film, those who have “decoded” it, are caught most firmly in its grip, unable to escape. Critic John Fell Ryan, arguably the “post-modernist” of the bunch, makes this point explicit, while discussing the reasons Kubrick layered his film with so many complexities: “It’s a way of trapping someone like me… You’re like, ‘Man, I’ve been, I’ve been trapped in this hotel forever’.”[12] They are caught within a narrative discourse already deeply implicated by a missing center. These features within (or on the surface of) The Shining are what we must turn to next.

 Although Kubrick’s film is regularly described as being one about a haunting and a possession, the director was careful to maintain a sense of ambiguity comparable to that achieved by Henry James in his The Turn of the Screw. As with the latter piece, an attentive viewer is encouraged to hesitate between at least two interpretations of what happened to the central figures. Are the ghosts of the Overlook tearing the Torrance family apart, or are they being driven mad by isolation and the mere suggestion of the supernatural?

When not providing space for wilder flights of interpretation, Room 237 highlights this narrative tension and, in doing so, intensifies it. Ascher’s interviewees, for instance, point out what might otherwise be considered continuity errors (if these elements were even noticed). A chair behind Jack disappears and then reappears between takes, the carpet pattern on which Danny sits prior to his exploration of room 237 changes between shots, Jack’s view of the hedge maze switches to an overhead shot of that labyrinth in a disorientating manner, and etcetera. Room 237 even features an avant-garde experiment in which The Shining is shown backward and forward simultaneously, yielding several disturbing cases of synchronicity which in themselves seem to mutely argue for different interpretations. Kubrick never allows two characters to experience the supernatural at the same time, further problematizing any simple reading of the film. The doubling effects present throughout The Shining (in the form of the two Gradys, Danny and his invisible friend Tony, and, of course, those infamous twins) find an echo in much of its most memorable dialogue. Grady urges Jack to “correct”[13] his family, Jack’s drink is “on the house,”[14] and even Wendy engages in double-speak when trying to downplay Jack’s violence while speaking with Danny’s doctor. These ambiguities go even further to widen the gap between the most common readings, proposing, as it were, a doubled narrative, one laid wraith-like and all but invisible over the other. Most of these effects are clearly intended, but what role do they play in the film’s reception and interpretation?

 Centers of representation (in The Shining: whether or not the haunting is real) impinge on and help to determine thematic centers (here: what meanings can be presumed to lie behind the story). Representational closure is a center “which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions”[15], fixing a text and providing the materials necessary to derive a solid meaning from it. Unbound by a stable core, by that transcendental signified which might otherwise tie the disparate pieces of a discourse into a coherent meaning, a given text is opened up to Derridean freeplay. This freeplay, however, does not seem to exist within a text entirely given over to a welter of disconnected words or images. Derrida suggests as much when he writes (of the field within which freeplay can be engaged), “[t]his field permits these infinite substitutions only because it is finite … because instead of being an inexhaustible field … there is something missing from it.”[16]

The poststructuralist project, particularly as practiced by Derrida, does aim at un-centering (virtually) every text it examines, but some works lend themselves more readily to this effort than others. The Shining provides a framework, linear and tied (through the use of generic tropes) to a rich tradition of Western horror fictions, but this surface is deceptively coherent. Through his persistent use of ambiguity and the production of aporia in his cinematic text, Kubrick encourages the sort of interpretive moves illustrated in Room 237. That any of them may prove “true,” though, is unlikely, as the very ambiguities which stimulate such readings also undermine them. Any secret meaning (determined by Weidner, Blakemore or others) is an addition, and “this addition is a floating one because it comes to perform a vicarious function, to supplement a lack on the part of the signified.”[17] The mystery of the Overlook is one which The Shining refuses to see dissolved, even to the last shot.  Far from solving these enigmas, the photograph on which the film closes amplifies them, and possibly adds yet another potential reading.[18]

 When questioned by Danny on the contents of room 237, Hallorann tells him “Nothing. There ain’t nothing in room 237.”[19] Hallorann is, diegetically speaking, trying to dissuade Danny from entering the room, but his statement comes eerily close to describing The Shining’s lack of a coherent, organizing center. The “nothing” within 237 is not the banal lack of mystery Hallorann would like Danny to believe.[20] It is, rather, a horrific and productive emptiness. Despite these indications, however, it would be a mistake to see The Shining as itself limited to being a self-reflexive commentary on the absence of a transcendental signified. Were it so, this very lack would become a new center which would ground the piece, probably spoiling the entire effect.

The freeplay which the film encourages is, however, an important feature, one which no doubt plays a significant role in the affective response the film has provoked in several generations of film-goers. It also suggests brand new ways in which creators of dark fiction may disturb their audiences. These are productive ambiguities, stimulating lacunae. Their deliberate manufacture takes more thought, more aesthetic sensitivity than might be imagined by those who think this all a bit of smoke and mirrors. Such a labyrinth must be constructed with exquisite care and then, vitally, it must be hidden beneath the surface of a story with more conventional narrative pleasures. Room 237 brings this feature of The Shining into relief by exposing the text to a series of radical interpretations, while simultaneously positioning these readings within a more ambiguous narrative structure. Had the documentary privileged any one of these theories by way of direct address or by excluding all others, the piece could be seen as seeking to fill the lack at the heart of the Overlook with a new center.[21] Instead, it helps further open a text in which the doors have already been left slyly cracked, proving that (as the documentary’s subtitle would have it), there are indeed many ways in, but no way out.

[1] Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” (1978), 83.

[2] Ibid., 84.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] For an illuminating, engaging, and reader-friendly account of this idea, check out Iain Thomson’s Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education (2005).

[6] Ibid., 84.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Room 237. Dir. Rodney Ascher. IFC Films, 2012. Film.

[10] Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” (1978), 85.

[11] Ibid., 85.

[12] Room 237. Dir. Rodney Ascher. IFC Films, 2012. Film.

[13] The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1980. Film.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” (1978), 91.

[16] Ibid., 91.

[17] Ibid., 91.

[18] Kubrick filmed an epilogue for the movie, one which he subsequently removed and destroyed. His reasoning: it would have rendered the film too ambiguous. A text composed of too many moments of aporia may overwhelm audiences, or at least fatally wound its money-earning capabilities.

[19] The Shining. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Warner Bros., 1980. Film.

[20] That Room 237 only includes this scene in its last moments indicates Ascher wishes his audience to pay special attention to it.

[21] By ending the documentary with Ryan’s comments on being “trapped” within The Shining, Room 237 may be seen to be privileging his essentially Derridean stance.